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Rubia tinctorum
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Gentianales
Family: Rubiaceae
Subfamily: Rubioideae
Tribe: Rubieae
Genus: Rubia
Type species
Rubia tinctorum

Rubia is the type genus of the Rubiaceae family of flowering plants, which also contains coffee. It contains around 80 species of perennial scrambling or climbing herbs and subshrubs native to the Old World.[1] The genus and its best-known species are commonly known as madder, e.g. Rubia tinctorum (common madder), Rubia peregrina (wild madder), and Rubia cordifolia (Indian madder).[2]


Skeins of yarn colored with dye from madder root, Rubia tinctorum.

Rubia was an economically important source of a red pigment in many regions of Asia, Europe and Africa.[3] The genus name Rubia derives from the Latin ruber meaning "red".

The plant's roots contain an anthracene compound called alizarin that gives its red colour to a textile dye known as Rose madder. It was also used as a colourant, especially for paint, that is referred to as Madder lake. The synthesis of alizarin greatly reduced demand for the natural compound.[4]

In Georgia, Rubia is used for dying Easter eggs in red.


Several species, such as Rubia tinctorum in Europe, Rubia cordifolia in India, and Rubia argyi in East Asia, were extensively cultivated from antiquity until the mid nineteenth century for red dye, commonly called madder. Cloth dyed with it has been found on Egyptian mummies. It was the ereuthedanon (ἐρευθέδανον) used for dyeing the cloaks of the Libyan women in the days of Herodotus.[5] It is the erythrodanon (ἐρυθρόδανον) of Pedanius Dioscorides, who wrote of its cultivation in Caria,[6] and of Hippocrates,[7] and the Rubia of Pliny.[8] R. tinctorum was extensively cultivated in south Europe, France, where it is called garance, and the Netherlands, and to a small extent in the United States. Large quantities were imported into England from Smyrna, Trieste, Livorno, etc. The cultivation, however, decreased after alizarin was made artificially.[9]

Madder was employed medicinally in ancient civilizations and in the Middle Ages. John Gerard, in 1597, wrote of it as having been cultivated in many gardens in his day, and describes its many supposed virtues,[10] but any pharmacological or therapeutic action which madder may possess is unrecognizable. Its most remarkable physiological effect was found to be that of colouring red the bones of animals fed upon it, as also the claws and beaks of birds. This appears to be due to the chemical affinity of calcium phosphate for the colouring matter.[11] This property was used to enable physiologists to ascertain the manner in which bones develop, and the functions of the various types of cell found in growing bone.[9]



  1. ^ "Rubia in the World Checklist of Rubiaceae". Retrieved April 2, 2014.
  2. ^ Cannon J, Cannon M (2002). Dye Plants and Dyeing (2 ed.). A & C Black. pp. 76–80. ISBN 978-0-7136-6374-7.
  3. ^ St. Clair, Kassia (2016). The Secret Lives of Colour. London: John Murray. pp. 152–153. ISBN 9781473630819. OCLC 936144129.
  4. ^ "Material Name: madder". material record. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. November 2007. Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved January 1, 2009.
  5. ^ Herod. iv. 189 [full citation needed]
  6. ^ Dioscorides iii. 160 [full citation needed]
  7. ^ Hippocrates, De morb. mul. i. [full citation needed]
  8. ^ Pliny xix. 17 [full citation needed]
  9. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Madder". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 280.
  10. ^ Herball, p. 960 [full citation needed]
  11. ^ Pereira, Mat. Med., vol. ii. pt. 2, p. 52 [full citation needed]

Further reading[edit]

  • Potts, Daniel T. (2022). "On the history of madder (Rubia peregrina L., and Rubia tinctorum L.) in pre-modern Iran and the Caucasus". Asiatische Studien - Études Asiatiques. 76 (4): 785–819. doi:10.1515/asia-2021-0039. S2CID 249627189.

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